As Indonesian film companies, makers, and individuals engage across national borders and Indonesian content becomes available outside Indonesia, Indonesia’s screen industries are undergoing a process of market transnationalisation. By tracing this process in terms of three vectors – film festivals, co-productions, and the silat martial arts genre – this blog draws attention to the ways in which Indonesia engages the global screen industries in an age of global production, promotion, and circulation, and some of the risks this entails, writes Thomas Barker
For the past two decades Indonesian screen industries have undergone a process of market transnationalisation as local companies, makers, and individuals engage across national borders and Indonesian content becomes available outside Indonesia. Indonesia now circulates globally, evidenced by greater coverage in trade publications such as Hollywood Reporter and Variety and filmmaker success at prestigious film festivals such as Locarno, Cannes, and Venice.
Still from Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Edwin, 2021) which won the Golden Leopard at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival. Photo by Eriekn Juragan. Image courtesy of Palari Films (https://palarifilms.com/).
For much of the New Order period (1966-1998) Indonesian cinema was domestically focused, characterised by strict regulation on imports, a wariness of foreign culture, and a focus on national issues. There were efforts to internationalise Indonesian cinema, including co-production projects, visits to festivals and markets, and other initiatives, but these were sporadic and often led by the state, framing them within national culture prerogatives. However, with the retreat of the state since 1998, the screen industries underwent a process of marketisation and liberalisation. Previous restrictions on cultural production and the decline of the crony monopoly in import and exhibition, and the proliferation of private television stations, increased competition enabling the entry of many new players across content production, distribution, exhibition, and advocacy.
In documenting these changes I have described Indonesian cinema of the post 2000s as ‘pop culture’ meaning it is market-orientated, focused on the youth consumer, driven by high-turnover and trends, and integrated with other pop culture such as music, celebrity, and advertising. As a result, Indonesian cinema is highly productive, varied, and relevant. It is also increasingly engaging with contemporary issues and trends in global pop culture. Indonesia’s appearance and global circulation will reshape our understanding and definition of Asian Cinema which has for decades focused on East Asia, especially Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. At the same time, the Indonesian case points to a new way of conceptualising transnational media especially in the context of streaming platforms and digital technologies, post-authoritarian politics, and the marketisation and liberalisation of the content industries.
Although I don’t have the space here to cover the literature on transnational media and its various iterations, I aim to introduce the metaphor of the vector to show the ways in which Indonesian screen industries are transnationalising, albeit in uneven and sporadic ways. I identify these three vectors as film festivals, co-productions, and the silat martial arts genre. These vectors enable and facilitate cross-border production, distribution, and exhibition expanding Indonesia’s presence in global media markets.
Throughout the 1990s it was mostly Garin Nugroho who pioneered the film festival approach to cinema by utilising festival networks especially Singapore, Tokyo, and later Busan to get his films screened, build his reputation, and attract investment. After 1998, this became a much more common trajectory for younger Indonesian filmmakers who saw festivals as a viable means to build their careers. Rotterdam and the Hubert Bals Fund proved to be a strong supporter of reformasi cinema, including the iconic film Kuldesak (1998) by Nan Achnas, Riri Riza, Rizal Mantovani and Mira Lesmana. A significant milestone came when Edwin (who is known by one name) premiered his short film Kara, Anak Sebatang Pohon / Kara, the Daughter of a Tree at Cannes Film Festival in 2005. Festivals are not just spaces where ‘foreign’ films are screened but have become much more integrated into the development and production process through workshops, mentorships, pitch sessions, and funding. Here we see more Indonesians participating and succeeding at festivals, including Joko Anwar winning the CJ Entertainment Award at the Asian Project Market (Busan International Film Festival) in 2014 allowing him to make A Copy of My Mind (2015), or Mouly Surya gaining accolades at Cannes in 2017 for her ‘satay Western’ Marlina the Murderer. Not only have festivals given Indonesian films greater visibility and proven their quality and contemporaneity, but they have also facilitated distribution and encouraged more transnational projects.
The second vector has been encouraged by the rapid expansion of global media giants including streaming platforms to Southeast Asia as they seek to capture the region’s audiences and purchase regional content. Though Indonesia has low consumer prices, the market of over 260 million is highly attractive, as are its films and TV shows which are made cheaply. HBO and Netflix were early entrants to the region, followed by Singapore start-up HOOQ (now closed), Malaysian iflix (now owned by Tencent / WeTV), and more recently Disney+, and Chinese services VIU and iqiyi. For streaming and other large media companies, co-producing allows entry into the local Indonesian market, to gain exclusivity, and take advantage of cheaper production costs. One of the biggest has been the Korean giant CJ Entertainment who partnered with numerous production houses to make Indonesia content, with Satan’s Slaves / Pengabdi Setan (Joko Anwar, 2018) also a big export hit. Netflix have commissioned films such as The Night Comes for Us (Timo Tjahjanto, 2018) and screened Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens (Lucky Kuswandi, 2021) exclusively. In the deterritorialised space of the streaming platform Indonesian content becomes available to a global audience.
Still from Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens (Lucky Kuswandi, 2021) a Netflix Original film. Photo by Raditya Bramantya. Image courtesy of Palari Films (https://palarifilms.com/).
The third vector of transnationalization is the silat martial arts genre which since The Raid (Gareth Evans, 2011) has become an Indonesian specialisation. The Raid was released internationally following exposure in Busan Fantastic and Toronto Film Festivals. Its stars Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Yayan Ruhian, and Cecep Arif Rahman have come to represent Indonesia and display silat and weaponry like the kerambit knife in subsequent appearances. Indonesian actor-fighters now appear in titles such as Mortal Kombat (Simon McQuoid, 2021), Wu Assassins (HBO, 2019), and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Chad Stahelski, 2019). What makes them attractive is not only their ability to fight, act and choreograph realistic ‘kinetic’ action sequences, but also the sense of authenticity they bring to their roles in much the same way as Tony Jaa did in Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003).
Although we can trace market transnationalisation along these three vectors – film festivals, co-productions, and silat – these vectors simultaneously constrain the Indonesian screen industries to existing opportunities and inclinations in the global screen economy: the networks of film festivals continue to be shaped by Europe and the cultural politics of funders, programmers, and audiences; co-productions draw on Indonesian creativity, but may leave business decisions in the hands of the large media partner; and the narrow focus on silat draws Indonesia into an ‘oriental style’ often associated with the stereotypes of the Kungfu film and typecasting as with Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan.
There is much to celebrate in the transnationalisation of Indonesia’s screen industries as it marks the country’s belated entry into global image circulation. Under the auspices of new systems of global image production and circulation, it remains imperative though to retain a sense of critical transnationalism when exploring these vectors of market transnationalisation especially from the global periphery. Indonesia nevertheless provides a rich case study of a screen industry undergoing transnational marketisation.
* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.